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Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

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It’s been a strange winter this year. Mild and wet for the most part with a with a few bright, crisp, days in-between the drear.

Sitting by the fire has kept us feeling warm and nourished and I have become convinced that gazing at a wood fire is one of the best ways to avoid seasonal depression or the winter blues.

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Bringing evergreens into the house can have a similarly uplifting effect and is a midwinter tradition that stretches back into our deep pre-Christian past and is common to nearly all Northern European cultures.

Conifers, Mistletoe, Holly and Ivy have been considered symbols of eternal life and immortality due to the fact that they stay green and lush amidst the barren winter landscape. In folklore it was believed that they offered a place for the faeries to dwell when it was too cold to be out of doors. They certainly offer shelter to birds outside of the house during the winter months as well as a valuable source of food. The berries of holly, ivy and mistletoe are toxic to humans and should be avoided but the leaves have been used medicinally for many centuries.

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The fresh young leaves of ivy were harvested and used to treat congested lungs, catarrh and coughs. Modern research has validated these traditional uses showing the ivy is anti-spasmodic and rich in saponins, soap like constituents which help to thin and remove stuck mucus in the body. They also help to reduce swelling in the respiratory tract. Some people are allergic to ivy so care must be taken, though reactions are rare.

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Holly was also used for coughs as well as for colds and flus. A few leaves were drunk in hot water as a general seasonal tonic and it was also considered cleansing, being used for arthritis and fluid retention as a diuretic. It’s astringent properties help to tone the mucus membranes and balance mucus production.

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The magical mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen that roots into its host tree and derives nourishment from it, enabling it to grow high up in the branches and without any access to soil. It is famous for being revered by the Druids. According to the Roman writer Pliny The Elder it was gathered with great ceremony including the sacrifice of two white bulls “A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.”

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Aside from its important purpose in facilitating kisses, it is also a valuable herbal medicine for treating a number of conditions. The leaves and twigs are the parts used and are most commonly made into a tea or tincture. The berries are fairly toxic but have been used externally in treating frostbite.

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It used to be used as a specific for epilepsy but today it is most popular for treating high blood pressure. It is useful for balancing menstrual flow and can be an important remedy during the menopause for anxiety, heart palpitations and flooding. Some people can find it quite heating though so beware if you are already a hot person and it is also one to avoid in pregnancy.
Mistletoe is also popular as a complementary cancer treatment, especially in Germany and Switzerland.

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These honey mushrooms, Armillaria mellea, are past their best now but in their prime they are both edible and medicinal. They have a history of use to treat neurological conditions such as vertigo and neurasthenia. Modern research has shown them to have anti-convulsive effects. Like all medicinal mushrooms they are also rich in polysaccharides and help to support proper functioning of the immune system.

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Similarly named but visually very different is the honey waxcap mushroom, above. The waxcaps have the most beautiful gills, as seen below with the equally beautiful butter waxcap.

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Winter beauty for me is all about the underlying forms and patterns of things. Whether that is branches stark against the sky, leaf veins illuminated by the low sun or the juxtaposition of hard edged rock and velvet moss.

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Next weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch so don’t forget to stock up your feeders and spend an hour jotting down any feathered visitors you spot.

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Cold weather usually results in dry skin so I have been making this lovely whipped body butter recipe recently. As I wanted to give it away to some pregnant friends I have kept the recipe simple and free from essential oils but if you get a good quality cacao butter then the chocolatey aroma is just perfect by itself.

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Whipped body butters are popular at the moment with good reason. Beating in the air makes them lighter and easier to absorb than a regular balm but without the fuss of adding water to make a cream so the end product is both simple to achieve and lovely to use. During winter I seem to think a lot about food so it’s no surprise that this recipe ended up being nutty, chocolatey and scrumptious smelling.

Nutty Chocolate Whipped Body Butter:
Makes 8 60g jars or 4 120g jars. Half the recipe if just for personal use.

Ingredients:
120g Cacao butter
120g Coconut oil
120g Shea Butter
60ml Macadamia nut oil
60ml Hazelnut oil
5ml Vitamin E

Melt all the ingredients except the vitamin E in a bain marie or double boiler making sure the pan underneath doesn’t run out of water. Stir regularly to ensure they are well mixed.

Once all the butters are melted, remove the bowl from the heat, allow to cool a little, add the vitamin E and stir well, then place in the fridge for about an hour giving it a stir every now and then. It is good to keep an eye on it as different fridges will have slightly different temperatures so yours may be ready after 40 mins. You will know it is good to go as they butters will still be semi-liquid but will have gone completely opaque. If they are too solid you won’t be able to whisk them so do keep checking.

When ready remove from fridge and start whisking. This will be a lot easier if you have an electric whisk, if not be prepared for aching arms! Soon it will start to look like thick buttercream icing. From here you can either spoon it into jars or pipe it in using a small plastic bag with the corner cut off.

Enjoy!

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After a very wet summer and autumn and a similar start to this year, everything is feeling decidedly damp. Our snow melted after a couple of days and it seemed that was the only taste of real winter we have had. Now everything has returned to the general dampness that has characterised most of the last year, a perpetual grey autumn leading on to a somewhat murky spring. The path from our house hasn’t dried out in months, the few bright days we have had not being enough to combat the effect of months of wet!

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Whilst it may sound like an obvious point to make, the environment and weather patterns outside our door play a vital role in the patterns of health and disharmony that we experience at any given time. So it’s little wonder than this year has been especially prolific in damp, phlegmy colds, chesty coughs and stuffy noses. The milder temperatures also allow bacteria to thrive and the general feeling of stagnation that comes from a water logged environment contributes to stagnation in our own bodies. So many people I have spoken to this winter have had colds and coughs that have hung on stubbornly for longer than usual and, even after they are feeling much better, there has still been some lingering phlegmy-ness!

While mucus is a natural and important part of our bodies, lining and protecting delicate membranes, phlegm is essentially the mucus of the respiratory passages gone bad! Whilst a balanced amount of mucus is essential to health, phlegm is often thicker, stickier and more related to states of disease or disharmony. Often when there is infection, the body will produce more mucus to help cleanse out the membranes but this can become congested or stuck leaving us with blocked passages along with a general sense of tiredness and malaise.

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Fog bank rolling over the escarpment

In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) conditions of ‘phlegm’ often arise from excess ‘damp’, but whereas damp is thin and watery, phlegm will be thick, sticky and cause obstructions. There will usually be a more obvious thick coating on the tongue along with other signs of congestion. Phlegm can also cause a whole host of other symptoms from dizziness and swellings to palpitations and a feeling of detachment. Dietary measures are often recommended to combat excess damp or phlegm including reducing or eliminating damp causing foods like dairy, bananas, pork, wheat products, beer and sugary foods. Foods to add in often involve root vegetables, garlic and onion, warming spices and teas of orange or lemon peel.

In Ayurvedic medicine phlegm would be seen as a disorder of kapha and treated with warming, drying herbs and lifestyle advice, as it would in Western energetics where the appropriate term, ‘phlegmatic’ sums up the constitution that is prone to an excess of the humour ‘phlegm’.

Depending on the nature of the client and their disharmony, there would be a few herbal categories that we would want to consider when treating people with excessive phlegm including mucus membrane tonics, immune tonics, expectorants, anti-catarrhals and possibly diaphoretics.

Firstly, if possible we would want to think about eliminating causes. This is relatively easy if they are dietary but much harder if they are environmental (a nice long holiday perhaps?). Then we would generally think about treating symptoms with a mix of herbs. Bearing in mind that everyone is different and each person’s unique symptoms and constitution must be considered, here is a list of a few herbal helpers that you may find useful when phlegmy-ness strikes.

Warming spices and aromatics: For many problems involving phlegm, these will be our first herbs of choice. Most warming spices will also have a slightly drying quality and many of the best ones can already be found in your kitchen cupboard such as ginger, cayenne, cinnamon and cardamom. Regular doses of these as tea or tincture will help to warm your whole body which will thin mucus and enable it to be expelled more easily. You can also add them to foods- think of how your nose runs after a spicy curry!

Aromatics will open up the channels and move stagnation and some are still harvestable over the winter months, even though they may not be at their peak in terms of taste or constituents. In particular I have been using rosemary and thyme from the garden this winter to add to foods or to make simple teas that warm body and mind and disperse congestion. Among the most useful of the aromatic herbs for phlegmy coughs is elecampane, Inula helenium, which has a wonderful combination of warming stimulating essential oils and soothing relaxing mucilage.

Mucus membrane tonics: In this category, goldenseal reigns supreme for treating the sinuses, however it is not a native herb and is highly endangered in the wild. Luckily there are some who are trying to grow it in this country. If you do use goldenseal, make sure you always buy from reputable suppliers who are making efforts to protect this valuable herbal ally. Elecampane is once again a very valuable asset for the lungs, as is hyssop, another wonderful aromatic with expectorant, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties.

Anti-catarrhals: These include elecampane, aniseed and goldenseal as well as goldenrod, eyebright and elderflower. Elecampane and aniseed are wonderful where phlegm has settled in the lungs whilst the others are more helpful for upper respiratory congestion and sinusitis.

Immune stimulants and anti-microbials: These herbs can help stop infection from occurring and turning a stuffy nose into a full blown sinus infection. Echinacea root is wonderfully useful as an immune stimulant in general but I find it particularly useful where problems of the upper respiratory tract are involved – you can often feel a good extract tingling all through your sinuses. Once again goldenseal is especially helpful being highly anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant. Garlic and onion are also very valuable allies, lots of chopped, raw garlic sprinkled on food is wonderfully anti-microbial and very warming.

As always if you are unsure of anything or have pre-existing health concerns it is wise to consult a local herbalist. Bearing that in  mind, I hope this has given you a few ideas for how to help yourself feel bright and well during these dark, damp days.

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When The Snow Came

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Snow came to our corner of the world on Friday, bringing with it that childlike sense of wonder and awe that never seems to diminish with the passing years.

There is nothing like a covering of snow to make us see the world afresh, as if, for those few brief days, it really was the blank slate it appeared to be and and we could create anything we dreamed of when the ice melted away.

The sight of snow-dusted seed heads of monarda, motherwort and lovage made me glad I have been lazy with tidying up the garden this winter.

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The mild winter so far has meant plenty of new growth appearing too, seen here on rose and ivy and the young nettles out in the lane.

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The colours of tree branches make for beautiful contrasts with the powdery snow, the blackness of ash buds and vibrant green lichen on the willow.

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My favourite tree on snowy days is the oak however. It’s sinewy branches trace dark, dancing patterns across the sky as it stands, like a great guardian, in a white washed world.

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One of my favourite oaks stands in the field in front of our house. This is how it looked on Friday as the first snow began to fall:

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And only two days previously, last Wednesday, bathed in low winter sun:

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I hope that if you too are in a part of the world with snow, you are keeping safe and warm.

I’ll be back soon with a post on using herbs to help banish winter phlegmy-ness!

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The Winter solstice has passed and with it the darkest day and the longest night. As the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky and begins to climb again, we celebrate rebirth and life, symbolised most often these days in the evergreens and sparkling lights with which we decorate our homes.

Often this is a time of year that involves reflection on the year that has passed and the gentle stirrings of hopes and dreams for the year to come. Our own inner process can be seen reflected in the natural world around us, our energy turned inwards, ready to emerge again with the awakening spring.

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So often aspects of consciousness can be seen reflected in nature, it almost seems to me at times that we are alive within a living allegory, a story made manifest in the very fabric of the world we inhabit. And underpinning it all, the nature of our wonderful Mother Earth is not unlike the nature of our consciousness.

The Earth provides for us everything that we know or can conceive of in our physical reality. Even things that appear unnatural like the plastics and pollutants that clog our lands and our waters are made from things that come from the Earth, only the processes they have gone through have made them damaging to us and other life forms. So it is with our thoughts. Even the most horrific of thoughts arise from consciousness but have become mutilated by other aspects of mind, present conditions and collective patterns.

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The Earth itself, like consciousness, just is. Things we label as good or bad, healing or poison, reward or punishment, may all be seen in it, but are not it. Both Earth and consciousness are beyond concepts of good and evil.

Too easily we characterise people, individually and collectively, as either inherently good but misguided, or inherently selfish and bad, but able to control themselves with proper limitations. The field of consciousness is a field of potential however, from which anything can and does arise depending on what is cultivated and how. The greatest kindness, the awful act of violence; the most sublime landscape, the island of plastic bags floating in our ocean.

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For me, disillusioned as I may sometimes become, there will always be hope for humanity because the field of potential is ever present. Within a larger picture than our own individual lives, even in the worst conditions, new life will eventually spring again.

We humans struggle with our perceptions of ourselves as part of nature, yet alienated by our individual experiences of life. Buddhists refer to our human lives as a ‘precious human rebirth’, not because humans are seen as separate from other beings – interconnection is the foundation of much of Buddhist thought – but because humans do perhaps have an enhanced ability to recognise their true nature. The flip side of this is of course that the mind has incredible power and can lead us on all sorts of false trails, but even when mind is totally out of control, consciousness is still what illuminates it and allows it to be, just as the Earth allows everything we can see or touch.

Wishing you all a wonderful festive season, however you choose to celebrate it, and a blessed 2013.

 

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Several people I know have had a nasty cough this autumn that they are finding difficult to shift. As it seems like there is something going around, I thought I would share this herbal cough syrup recipe incase any of you are struggling with the same thing.

A syrup such as this one is lovely if your cough has both dry, tickly phases as well as wetter, more productive ones, as there are herbs here that wll address both states. As a syrup is slippery and sweet in nature though I would avoid it if your cough is very wet and you tend to be an all round damp sort of person. In this case tinctures and teas would probably suit you better.

As I have said before, don’t be put off if you don’t have all these herbs. A classic cough syrup recipe contains just liquorice and thyme herbs so you could try this if you wanted to make it more simple.

I don’t normally use a lot of sugar in the recipes I make but it does work best for this syrup unless you plan to use it all up within a couple of months and store it in the fridge, in which case honey should be fine as an alternative, sticking to equal parts raw honey to herbal liquid.

Herbal Cough Syrup:

25g Thyme leaf
25g Mullein leaf
25g Marshmallow root
25g Licorice root
25g Aniseed
25g Echinacea root
2 sticks Cinnamon

Water 1 litre
Sugar (organic soft dark brown is nicest) 750 g – 1 kg (depending on amount of liquid left after preparation.)
Peppermint EO – 8 drops (be sure you have 100% pure, preferably organic, essential oil, not fragrance oils which can be cut with all kinds of chemicals. Buy from a reputable supplier like Neal’s Yard or Materia Aromatica.)

Method:

Place the roots in a pan along with the aniseed and cinnamon sticks and cover with 1 litre of water. Bring to the boil and then turn down immediately to a gentle simmer, putting the lid on the pan to prevent too much evaporation. Simmer for 20 mins then turn off the heat and add the thyme and mullein allowing to infuse for a further 15 mins. When cooled enough to handle, strain the herbs out and measure how much liquid you have. You should be left with between 750ml and 1 litre.

Return this liquid to the pan along with an equal quantity in grams of soft dark brown sugar. So if you have 800ml liquid you will need to add 800g sugar and so on. Return to a simmer, stirring continually then remove from the heat and stir as it cools and thickens. Add in the drops of peppermint essential oil and stir well to ensure it is properly mixed in. Bottle in sterilised bottles.

You can take a tablespoon of this syrup as needed up to 8 times a day. For children younger than 12 make this a teaspoon and those between 2 and 6 a half teaspoon.

It makes a delicious mix so is a most pleasurable way to banish the season’s ailments.

Wishing you all good health!

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A Song of Ice and Fire

Well Imbolc arrived a few days ago, heralding the beginnings of spring… and bought with it the winter.

Last week we had the first really cold days of the season and today we woke up to a blanket of snow.

The perfect weather for a stroll down the lane, marvelling at how different everything looks after the snow comes.

The few colours to be seen in the starkly beautiful landscape are that much more present and vibrant in contrast with their surroundings.

Icicles hang from the branches, frozen in time, mid-drip.

And teasels bow their heads under the weight of the snow.

The Helichrysum, or curry plant, in the garden looked particularly beautiful, its silvery leaves caught between ice and morning light.

I love the way this weather highlights different aspects of the trees, making me see their forms in a new and inspiring way. Branches of oak and willow looked particularly lovely, their forms intensified by snowlines.

We saw tracks of rabbits, pheasants and foxes alongside our own great stomp-prints.

Can you see the little rabbits out on the lane?

 Some were understandably less enthused at venturing out of their burrows.

Whilst others were very happy to come inside, warm their claws and discover new treats on the kitchen floor.

Whilst we are warming up by the fire, I spare a thought for all the other creatures who will find it difficult to gather enough food today and make sure there is plenty of seed out for the birds.

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Early Winter Sun

Despite the warmer weather we are merely days from December and, even if the temperature is mild, the low winter sun orientates me at the change of season. I love to go out walking on days like these when the sun gleams through the leaves and even the dead stems of roadside plants are lit up with beauty.

The juxtaposition of vibrantly green grass, golden leaves and bare grey/brown branches against a bright blue sky makes for a starkness that is at once deathly and vibrantly alive.

The Burdock seeds catch on my coat and ensure I slow down enough to appreciate their perfect form and subtle beauty. Can you see all the little hooks they use to ensure they are carried near and far? Look a little closer…

Rosehips still bedeck the hedgerows with little flashes of colour whilst Hawthorns are now browning and becoming dull. Their sinewy branches and great thorns look somehow prehistoric and wild as the leaves die back and expose them fully in all their savage beauty.

One of the plants that catches my eye most at this time of year is the wonderfully witchy Black Bryony which winds and twines amongst the branches of other plants. She dangles temptingly juicy red berries like little Christmas ornaments draped through the trees, just ready to seduce the unwary passer by into an eternal sleep. Though it was once used sparingly in herbal medicine, the whole plant is highly poisonous. Maude Grieve tells us, “Death in most painful form is the result of an overdose, while the effect of a small quantity, varying not with the age only, but according to the idiosyncrasies of the patient, leaves little room for determining the limit between safety and destruction.”

And on the subject of Christmas decorations. It’s almost time to hang some mistletoe in our house, just to ensure a maximum number of kisses throughout the month of December!

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